Dear EarthTalk: What ever happened to the idea of turning Mt. St. Helens into a national park?
— Esther Monaghan, Boston, MA
Mt. St. Helens, one of the less prominent yet massive peaks of Washington State’s Cascade Range, made history on May 18, 1980 by erupting with the force of 500 atomic bombs, devastating 230 square miles of formerly verdant forest and killing 57 people. After considerable debate about what to do with the decimated landscape in the aftermath, Congress sided with scientists advocating it be left alone for research and education. In 1982 Congress created the 172-square-mile Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which had already been overseeing the forests on the flanks of the mountain as part of the surrounding 1.3 million acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
But in 2007 federal budget cuts coupled with diminishing visitation led the Forest Service to close one of its two primary visitor centers at Mt. St. Helens and scale back on its interpretive and management services. At that point, representatives from surrounding communities and environmental groups and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell came together in an effort to convince Congress to switch Mt. St. Helens over to a national park, which would ensure a larger funding pool for visitor services and amenities and ideally spur more visitation, which would in turn mean more business for struggling local communities.
Instead of pushing for national park status, however, Cantwell and her Congressional colleagues asked the Forest Service to detail how they plan to protect Mt. St. Helens while expanding visitor services and recreational opportunities. The Forest Service subsequently put into place a new plan which, with help from the recently formed Mt. St. Helens Institute, would expand services and explore new options for overnight visitation. Tourism has since grown, but many still want to see Mt. St. Helens a national park.
Indeed, recent research by Michigan State University shows that national parks are huge economic engines, pumping nearly $13 billion in economic activity into gateway communities while supporting 250,000 jobs. “For every dollar spent on national parks, four dollars are returned to the economies of gateway communities,” says Sean Smith, policy director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “More than seven million people visited Washington’s national parks last year alone and national parks nationwide received near record-breaking visitors, despite one of the toughest economies in decades.”
But perhaps more important, says Smith, is that Mt. St. Helens “is likely the most iconic American landscape currently not in the national park system [with] natural, cultural and historic wonders on par with other parks such as Olympic, Zion, and Crater Lake.” He adds that national park status would better protect Mt. St. Helens’ natural treasures from potential housing developments and even a proposed open pit gold mine that would be visible from the main visitor center and would decimate one of the most remote and pristine parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest adjacent to Mt. St. Helens’ lower flanks.
While the debate continues, Mt. St. Helens remains an amazing example of Mother Nature’s fury and her restorative powers. Whether it’s a national monument or a national park, it’s well worth a visit.